Here’s my sermon for Palm Sunday.
Matthew 21.1-11 (The Palm Gospel) and Matthew 27.11-54 (The Passion Gospel – short version)
In the run-up to Christmas people often say to me, “Christmas – it’s your busiest time of the year, isn’t it.” Well, the only answer to that is, “No, it isn’t!” At Christmas I spend a great deal of time going to things that other people organise – school performances, carol services and so on. It’s busy to an extent, but nowhere near as busy as the eight days that begin with Palm Sunday and culminate in the great celebration of the resurrection on Easter Day.
On Palm Sunday, we commemorate the beginning of the last week of Jesus’ life on earth. Today marks the beginning of that time in the church year called “Holy Week.”
During this week we will commemorate the Last Supper that Jesus had with his disciples in a furnished upper room, and how he washed the feet of the disciples. The day after we remember the events and circumstances which led to the crucifixion of Jesus. By the time we gather again here next Sunday, there will have been worship services offered every day of the week except Saturday – I have fifteen of them over the eight days – as well as several sermons to write and confessions to hear. For this is the most important time in the Church’s Year. We do this to be reminded of the Lord’s suffering and death on our behalf, and of his triumph over sin and the grave. Which is why it is important together, at the very least, to worship as a community on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Day, as we share with our Lord in his suffering and death and resurrection.
And it all begins here. Episode 1 of the great saga of Holy Week. We began our worship this morning with the hymn “All glory, laud and honour” – a hymn which is over a thousand years old and which is traditionally used during the Palm Sunday procession as we wave our palm crosses, much as the people of Jerusalem would have waved their palm branches centuries ago. We identify with the enthusiasm of the crowds at Jesus’ triumphal entry into the city gates, riding on a colt. It was a festive occasion.
Not everyone that day, however, was in a festive mood. The religious authorities of Jerusalem, both the lay leaders and clergy, sensed a scandal in the making. Maybe the scandal of Palm Sunday is that Jesus didn’t enter Jerusalem as in a formal procession fit for a king, like the Queen when she goes to open a new session of Parliament, but in a popular celebration among the “masses”. The occasion was probably rather like the Notting Hill Carnival. The cheering and boisterous crowd going in front, beside, and behind Jesus as he rode into the gates of the city were enough to strike terror in the hearts of the religious authorities. They must have been so worried at the prospect of a popular uprising and an attempt to overthrow the Roman authorities. In Luke’s version of the story, some of the Pharisees in the crowd say to Jesus: “Teacher, order your disciples to stop.” Matthew’s gospel reports, “When he entered Jerusalem, the whole city was in turmoil, asking, ‘Who is this?’” Everyone was certain that Jesus would turn the tables on the Roman government. Everyone from the religious authorities, who were fearful of the consequences if he did so, to the crowds surrounding Jesus, who wanted to get rid of the Romans, to his own bewildered disciples, who as usual probably hadn’t got a clue what Jesus was up to this time.
But, as things began to unfold, the only tables Jesus turned in Jerusalem were the tables of the moneychangers in the temple courtyard, where Jesus goes immediately on entering Jerusalem. Not exactly the work of a conquering Messiah, as the crowds had long hoped for. What on earth did this Jesus think he was doing? And soon, the crowds who had shouted “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the coming Kingdom of our father David!” began shouting, “Crucify Him! Crucify Him – we have no king but Caesar!” For crowds can be very fickle. One day you can be a hero, and the next day you become a suspect. And a dark side of human nature is the speed at which people will rush to knock down a fallen hero.
Take the case of Richard Jewell, the so-called “Olympic Bomber”. Jewell, working in Security for the Olympic Games at Atlanta in 1996, spotted a suspicious-looking knapsack which turned out to be a lethal bomb. Her notified the authorities and then tried to evacuate the area as best he could before the bomb exploded, which it did killing one person and injuring hundreds For his efforts, the news media dubbed him a “hero”, and everyone wanted to ask him how it felt to be a hero. But within a few days, the FBI quite deliberately leaked a report to the newspaper the Atlanta Constitution that Jewell was their chief suspect – and that he had planted the bomb himself so that he could pretend to find it and make himself a hero. And we all know what happens when the media get hold of a story like that.
Suddenly Jewell was no longer a hero. The media were falling over themselves in their efforts to drag him down from the pedestal on which they had put him. The same “crowd” which had clamoured for an interview now clamoured to get rare footage of Mr. Jewell’s apartment being searched. He became a figure of hate. Public figures, both politicians and major television presenters, condemned him – even though there was no evidence to support the storey. Some of the injured sued him for damages. He was only exonerated when the real culprit, the perpetrator of several other bombings, admitted his guilt. Richard Jewell died at the age of 44 having lived though quite appalling treatment by the media and the public.
Heroes so quickly become hate-figures. And while we might like to think that, had we been there, we’d have been different, I’m sure that in reality we would have joined in with the rest of them, praising Jesus one day and condemning him the next. Jesus did not conduct his ministry with an eye to pleasing the crowds. He didn’t come to make us happy – he came to save us, to pay the price for our sins, and to show us how to live and to show us the way to heaven. He never intended to be a crowd-pleaser.
Someone once said: “A man who wants to lead the orchestra must turn his back on the crowd.” One cannot always achieve the crowd’s undying devotion. Try as we do to meet with other’s expectations and approval, there comes a time when we have to do what is just and true and right – even if it pleases no one but our own conscience. Jesus chose to turn his back to the crowd so he could give them what they really needed.
And so, at the end of the Palm Sunday parade into Jerusalem was the Temple. When Jesus entered Jerusalem he went straight for the Temple – not where the crowd wanted him to go, to the Governor’s Palace, or to the Roman Headquarters – not even winding through the narrow streets, picking up supporters as he might have done. No, he went directly into the Temple. And Mark tells us that upon entering the Temple, at the end of the parade of palms, Jesus “looked around at everything.” His business was with his Father’s House. He wanted to make sure everything was in its place. He wanted to please God, not the crowds.
Our business, too, is with God, too. We must do what we do in order to please God. Don’t do it just to please others. At times we get so wrapped up in pleasing others that we become obsessed with making ourselves look good in the eyes of others, rather than being concerned about doing what is right in the eyes of God. Jesus was not concerned about the approval of the crowds. He was concerned about doing His Father’s will. We need not be concerned with pleasing others, or gaining approval or accolades. We need only please God.
Wesley Wilkey, an American pastor, writing about Jesus riding into Jerusalem on a donkey said: “When Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday the crowd cheered. The poor little donkey probably thought all the attention was for him. So, if applause comes my way, I know it’s really for Him [Jesus]. At parade’s end, it is my greatest joy to be one of the Lord’s little donkeys.”
I’m not entirely sure I feel like one of the Lord’s little donkeys, any more than you do, but I’m sure we all take his point. All that we do is not for us, but that the name of Jesus might be glorified. As the Lord’s little donkeys, we serve that Jesus might receive the praise.